Ireland joined the European Community in 1973, at the same time as the United Kingdom and Denmark. Ireland is located in the British Isles and shares land and sea borders with the United Kingdom. As the first new members of the club since its foundation in 1958, the entry of three new countries marked a significant change for the European Community. While many European projects have been welcomed in Ireland, in recent years its electorate has expressed increasing wariness about EU integration.
Ireland's history over the last ten years has been dominated by the incredible economic transformation that the country has undergone. At the time of its accession Ireland was performing poorly in economic terms; however, by the 1990s Ireland's economic situation had dramatically improved to achieve almost full employment and a budget surplus. The economic success story was short-lived however, when in 2008, Ireland became the first country in Western Europe to officially fall into a recession in the wake of the global financial crisis. Ireland underwent one of the deepest recessions in the Eurozone, with its economy shrinking by 10 per cent in 2009.
Another important issue has been the progress of the Northern Ireland peace process, in which the Irish government has played an important role. Ireland has also sought a place on the world stage, as was seen during the very fruitful 2004 Irish Presidency of the European Council. It is hoping for a repeat of this success, having just taken over the role again in 2013.
Ireland is a parliamentary republic. The Head of State is the President, currently Michael Higgins who was elected in October 2011. The President has a mainly ceremonial role. Executive power rests with the cabinet, led by the Prime Minister (Taoiseach), and the Parliament (Oireachtas). The Parliament is made up of two chambers - the lower house (Dáil), which has 166 members, and the Senate (Seanad), which has 60 members. The Dáil is the main decision-making chamber and its members are elected by proportional representation for terms of five years. The current government, agreed after a general election in February 2011, is a coalition formed of the Fine Gael and Labour Party, and the Prime Minister is Enda Kenny.
Ireland's decision to join the European Community was closely linked to the decision of the UK to join in 1973. As a former part of the United Kingdom, Ireland had close cultural and economic links with Britain, meaning that it felt that it was in its interests to follow the UK's lead. On 10 May 1973 the Irish people voted to join the European Communities, with 81.3 per cent voting in favour.
Ireland was economically backward with a shrinking population and a huge reliance on agriculture at the time of joining the European Community. After joining, Ireland's economy was transformed, in part due to the greater trade possibilities within the single market, and it experienced significant economic growth, making it amongst the most dynamic economies in Europe. However, the global economic downturn, which began in 2008, caused many problems for countries across the EU, and Ireland in particular suffered badly. In November 2010, the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed to Ireland's bailout request, and with bilateral loans also agreed Ireland was able to borrow €85 billion. After some controversy, the Dáil approved the loan package by 81 votes to 75 in December 2010. The bailout agreement left many Irish citizens angry at their government, forcing Prime Minister Brian Cowen to resign. The ensuing February elections saw his party, Fianna Fáil, suffer their worst defeat in 85 years, in a backlash against their agreement to the EU's bailout terms.
Ireland has had a mixed relationship with the EU. The Irish electorate voted against the Nice Treaty in a 2001 referendum. The Treaty was later accepted following a further vote in 2002. More recently, Ireland rejected the Lisbon Treaty at a referendum in June 2008. To be implemented, the Treaty needed to be ratified by all member states, so Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty caused confusion and controversy. Intensive negotiations followed, and Ireland secured a number of conditions ('protocols') to the Treaty, including a promise to safeguard its neutrality in defence issues and its right to decide on abortion laws. A second referendum was held in October 2009, when the Irish people voted 'Yes' to the Lisbon Treaty. Regardless of the people's caution with regard to the introduction of new treaties, in June 2011 the Eurobarometer reported that Ireland had the third most pro-EU population, with 63 per cent of those questioned considering Irish membership of the EU to be a good thing. The nature of the Irish Constitution means that a referendum is often required to ratify any significant EU treaty changes. Therefore the Irish people have voted positively in referendums relating to Europe in 1973, 1987, 1992, and 1998. A referendum on Irish ratification of the EU Fiscal Compact treaty will be held on 31 May 2012.
Ireland was a founding member of the Eurozone, in 2000, but, like the UK, does not belong to the Schengen area.
- Ireland enjoyed relatively low unemployment in 2005; the unemployment rate was just 4.3%. By January 2011, however, this had increased to 14.7%.
- Ireland has a population of approximately 4.5 million.
- At the height of its economic troubles, Ireland's budget deficit reached a peak of 32 per cent of GDP following a state bailout of its banks.
- Ireland has held the six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council a total of six times, and is scheduled to hold it again in 2013.
- In 2004, Ireland was one of only three EU member states to open its borders to immigrants from the 10 new EU member states immediately.
Proportional Representation: electoral system where the overall number of votes determines the distribution of seats.